Shifting Paradigms – Navigating the Brave New World of Biology
Colin Hamilton and his partner, Beverley, have embarked on a journey of discovery. They farm 3000 acres near Narromine, in the central west of NSW. They have cropped cereals, cotton and legumes on the farm for the past fifteen years using the standard range of farm chemicals and acid fertilisers. After attending seminars by some of the leaders in the burgeoning biological agriculture movement, Col decided to initiate changes on his farm. He made some common mistakes while grappling with direction but the positive changes are happening and his enthusiasm grows. In the following interview Col and Bev share details of their journey in a generous effort to help others make the change.
Graeme: It’s great to see you both again after meeting you at our last four day course. It is pleasing to see that you are progressing down this path. What inspired your paradigm change?
Col: Well, I attended a course held locally by Professor Elaine Ingham and it really opened my eyes to the whole idea of life in the soil and how it could impact our farming operations. My interest was sparked so I attended a series of seminars around the country by people like Dr Arden Andersen, Bart Davidson, Hugh Lovel and Hamish Mackay. Bev also attended the biodynamic workshop by Hamish and when we got home we decided to get started.
Graeme: What was the condition of your soils when you decided to play with biodynamics? Did you have any earthworms for example?
Col: No the soil was pretty dead after years of simozine. We also had a major problem with herbicide resistance which is a big issue in a no till situation.
Bev: I applied one of the BD preps to the house gardens and the difference was obvious so we thought we would apply it to the farm. We actually made our own 500 prep with cow horns. We also made a cow poo pit.
Graeme: It’s amazing what the NZ biodynamics consultant, Peter Proctor, has done in India with pit composting. I was speaking at a large organic conference in India a few years ago and Peter had a stall at the trade show linked to the conference. I called in to see him and had to fight through a massive crowd to get to him. He had such an impact they were almost treating him like Ghandi. Biodynamics has battled to gain a large foothold on this side of the globe because it is so esoteric. The Indians had no hesitation in accepting it. Their belief system allows for the spiritual and energetic realms that are involved in BD. They just said “That sounds pretty right. Let’s get started!” Sir Albert Howard, the Father of modern composting, actually began the idea of cow manure compost pits while working in India last century. How did your compost work out?
Bev: It was magic stuff and we then bought some flow forms and decided to apply 500 to the whole farm.
Graeme: Were you happy with the result?
Col: No, we did not see anything obvious so it was back to the drawing board.
Graeme: It’s a big ask to expect subtle energies and homeopathic preparations to rapidly recover years of unwitting soil abuse. The best idea here would have been to clear out the chemical contaminants in the soil using three kilos of fulvic acid powder per hectare. That is the way to fast track the removal of toxins but it may not be as viable in broadacre as it is in horticulture, due to the cost. A slower clean-up option involves improving the conditions for the biology that will ultimately clean up the chemicals. We have found that biodynamics works particularly well in conjunction with biological agriculture but it is more like the cream on top rather than the starting point of meaningful change. French wine growers, for example, have done really well with a fusion of both approaches. What was your next move?
Col: It was around this time that we heard about the NTS Certificate in Sustainable Agriculture and decided to attend. This course pulled all of the information together and the human health focus was tremendous.
Bev: We still make our Bio-Bubble muesli every morning and we have adopted many of your suggestions.
Graeme: That’s great to hear. It is amazing to witness the difference that food makes, even in the short term. When I am giving interstate seminars the food often involves white bread sandwiches and sweet biscuits. The difference in alertness and knowledge retention is obvious. When farmers attend our course at Yandina they receive wonderful whole foods that are nutrient dense and tasty. There is an obvious behavioural effect and it is quite an eye opener for some of them to recognise the link between food and how they feel.
Col: We certainly enjoyed that food. It was one of the highlights of the four days.
Graeme: Did you put anything into practice when you got back home from the course?
Col: Yes we used the combination of your mycorrhizal fungi product, Platform and Seed Start, on the seed before planting this current crop. I had actually bought Seed Start before from your distributors, Ylad, and there was an obvious response. Seed treatment seems to offer the biggest bang for the buck.
Graeme: You are right there. Seed Start has proven such a good product. It can offer such a kick start for just a couple of dollars per hectare. Now you can add Platform and get your crop colonised with mycorrhizal fungi for just $5 per hectare. Platform has generated some of the best feedback we have ever seen with any product in the past seventeen years. It is new but there have been some great photos of vastly superior root structure on treated wheat crops.
One thing I would like to ask you about relates to your weed management plans for this season because I think a large number of growers will be interested in your pioneering approach. One of the key issues regarding minimum and no-till farming is the fact that it involves blanket herbiciding with contact weed killers like glyphosate. Even though there is no doubt that no-till farming is a better way to build soil carbon, there is a big question about the sustainability of the herbicides. This has become an even bigger question in light of the recent findings from Professor Don Huber. He has linked Glyphosate to problems with forty different soil diseases because it compromises the plant’s immune system and kills some of the creatures that protect against these diseases. You have made the courageous decision this year to grow without herbicides. How do you intend to do that?
Col: Twelve months ago we were considering going organic but it was too difficult when we were bringing in new livestock that didn’t come from an organic background. The hardest part, though, seemed to be the idea of farming without herbicides, so we looked more deeply into this. We learnt from you and others that weeds are often a signpost of a nutritional deficiency and as they can accumulate these nutrients from deep in the soil, they are actually serving a purpose. When they are turned back in they can help return those nutrients to the topsoil. This year we are growing completely without herbicides.
Graeme: Wow! What does the crop look like at the moment?
Col: It’s a huge change of mindset to have to accept weeds in your crop.
Bev: This is an ex-irrigation block that has always been kept as clean as a whistle.
Graeme: One way to manage weeds when you are using some cultivation is to use something called blind cultivation. This involves stirring the surface just after planting, just before germination. This is designed to take out the weed seedlings which are smaller and on the surface. It doesn’t affect the crop seeds as they are planted deeper. The idea here is to allow the crop to stake its zone with the emission of an inhibitory auxin hormone that reduces the vitality of weed seedlings. All plants use this biochemical trick to give themselves an advantage over competitors. By the time the second flush arrives the crop has a considerable advantage over the weed. The weeds are moved mechanically with a finger weeder or some other surface scuffling implement, twice more before the crop shades them out completely. However, you can’t use this strategy in no-till situations so how do you get rid of the weeds to even plant the crop in the first place.
Col: Well, we use a crimp roller like they have been using in Brazil for some time to pack down their green manure crops in no till situations. It has a helix pattern underneath.
Graeme: I see. You just roll and crimp the residues to make a sort of organic matter crust which you can plant directly in to?
Col: That idea worked really well where we had used a green manure crop. In fact, we now have earthworms back in that block for the first time in years. However, it was a little harder where we used the crimp roller to handle the large amount of stubble that remained from a wet year. We used a stubble digesting blend to break down the stubble a bit before rolling it down. It sort of worked because we were able to plant directly into the mat but we could probably have got our timing better. We did nothing with the weeds that grew through.
Graeme: It’s a big deal to have the earthworms return. Good on you! You are on your way back!
Col: First we got the dung beetles back and now some earthworms, so we know we are on the right track.
Graeme: So you direct drill into the mat after crimping. Do you put anything under the crop or liquid inject at planting?
Col: We have planted with guano the past two seasons and are happy with the results. There was no added N but with the crop didn’t seem to suffer.
Graeme: I would have thought that there would have been some nitrogen draw down with all of that organic matter present.
Col: We are using a legume rotation so there was some residual nitrogen in the soil but having just returned from Europe I realise that I should be using clover in the crop.
Graeme: Interplanting with a legume is a great concept. There is a misconception that the legume will steal nutrition from the cash crop but this doesn’t seem to be the case. On our research farm we have tried interplanting soybean with table corn and it was a great idea. There was no obvious competition and that crop received a lot more nitrogen. Legumes offer more than nitrogen. They also release acids which break the bond between locked up calcium and phosphate in the soil and release both of these minerals right next to the corn roots. Leaf analyses revealed significant increases in nitrogen, calcium and phosphate in the corn which was planted with soybean.
Col: At this point the crops grown amongst the so-called weeds look pretty good so we will see what happens later in the season.
Graeme: Are you intending to foliar spray with urea and humic acid to give the crop a bit of a boost?
Col: Yes that is the plan. The few weeds in the crop won’t contaminate the grain harvest so that’s not an issue. There aren’t that many of them but they look a bit messy and it’s pretty hard to get used to.
Graeme: My friend, Vic Camilleri, grows 1000 acres of organic soybeans and he achieves exceptional control at this time in the crop cycle with something called a rod weeder. It is essentially a revolving rod about thirty meters long which revolves in the opposite direction to which you are moving and rips the weeds up from the ground without disturbing the soil. You should visit him at Gunnedah sometime. He would be happy to show you how it works.
Col: That’s good we will check that out.
Graeme: You are basically saying that the weeds are there for a purpose so you are leaving them there. It’s a pretty gutsy decision!
Col: We will have to see the end result but so far so good.
Graeme: It is a new mindset alright. We have a client who is a very successful orchardist and he lets the weeds grow in the orchard and slashes them before they seed. He sees them as an asset now, a source of nutrition and mulch, and his yields have certainly not suffered. Maybe we have all been conditioned to think that weeds are evil invaders that must be removed and this may not be the case.
Col: When we have used glyphosate in the past we have used your idea of combining fulvic acid and citric acid with the herbicide and we have at least been able to use less and know that it is rapidly biodegraded in the soil.
Graeme: I’ve been thinking that with all of the damning evidence about glyphosate that has surfaced recently we should probably all be thinking about using one of the other contact herbicides. We all used to think that glyphosate was the safest herbicide option but that is definitely not the case. The compound that it breaks down to is actually worse than the original material.
Col: One of the reasons we decided to drop the glyphosate was because the herbicide resistance is getting ridiculous and you just keep having to use nastier herbicides to try to control the resistant weeds. It’s obviously not sustainable.
Graeme: Herbicide resistance is a horror show everywhere. There are fifteen new herbicide resistant weeds each year. We do need to look at other ways and I applaud your efforts at trying to get off the herbicide treadmill. Thanks so much for agreeing to this chat.
Col: It was a pleasure.